wild colonial girl

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Writing Mothers: Kirsten Tranter

Kirsten TranterSydney-based writer Kirsten Tranter has published two novels in quick succession, The Legacy and A Common Loss, to international critical acclaim. While she has written widely about the trials and tribulations of writing a second novel, the setting of A Common Loss (the neon streets of Las Vegas) has distinguished her writing from other Australian contemporaries.

Angela Meyer, from Literary Minded, described the book’s appeal:

The complexity of Vegas — where people dream, work, gamble, are seduced, marry, play, and drink themselves to death in giant rooms under flashing lights — is the perfect setting for this book about a man, an intelligent man, an academic, who realises he’s not as aware (or even self-aware) as he thought he was. Eventually, in Vegas, he begins to see behind the surfaces to the wear and tear.

A keen supporter of the Stella Prize, Kirsten wrote a terrific article for the Wheeler Centre on why women are missing from the literary pages (and what we can do about it).

While Kirsten grew up in Sydney (and lives, teaches and writes there now), she was living in New York, completing a PhD in English on Renaissance poetry at Rutgers University, when she found out she was having a baby. I spoke to her about trying to juggle the early stages of a writing career with having her first child.

When you were pregnant, what were your expectations regarding having a baby and writing? Were you planning to write after the baby was born?

When I was pregnant I was still writing my dissertation in English at Rutgers; my plans for novel writing were still very vague. I expected to be able to write after the baby was born. I overestimated how much time I would have to do that. That is an understatement.

What was it like in reality? Did you get any writing done in the first year after your baby was born?

Not really.

It was a very difficult year for my family in lots of ways: each one of us had serious medical issues, and when Henry was about nine months we relocated from New York to Sydney. For the next year I held around four part-time jobs including teaching and research assistant work while I struggled to keep going with my dissertation and gradually got my health back on track. I was teaching creative writing for the first time and it was a really new thing to think about myself as that sort of writer; I hadn’t published much for a long time and I felt like a bit of a fraud I think. But I had some small bits and pieces of this novel I’d been working on for several years, and I decided to apply for an Australia Council grant. To my huge surprise I was successful. When the grant came through we were back in the US, and it was a great spur to finish my PhD. I didn’t let myself write a word on the novel until the dissertation was done, and then I dived into it with enormous joy and relief. I used the grant to pay for childcare, and having three or four days a week with a decent chunk of time to myself changed everything.

Did you find it difficult to sit down and write? Or was it the opposite? Were you more creative, as you had less time, and had to be super disciplined?

Once we had childcare in place, around the time my son turned three, I was able to structure in time to write. Having such limited time made me far more disciplined than I had ever been before. I wrote my first novel in around 8 months (125,000 words) once I finished my PhD and gave real time to it, though I’d been tinkering around the edges of it for several years before that.

Kirsten Tranter, A Common LossDid you find the experience of motherhood starting to seep into your characters? Into the way you portray people?

I’ve actually thought a lot about this since I first contemplated your question, and it’s very complicated. I do feel like a different person in many ways since becoming a mother, but I didn’t settle down to full-time fiction writing until after I became a mother, so there’s no precise “before” and “after” story in my case.

Finishing my dissertation certainly had a huge impact on my confidence in my ability to imagine and complete a big, complex writing job. But the experience of childbirth itself was also radically transformative, and perhaps provided some of the courage that fuelled that project too. I had a very difficult experience in hospital with Henry’s birth, and survived it with a totally new sense of my own capabilities.

Motherhood has changed how I see the world and other people because of my intense attachment to Henry, in two key ways I think. The first one is the intense emotional vulnerability that comes with being a parent. Someone once described it to me as this tremulous sense of having your own heart or some essential part of yourself outside your body, in the body of this other person, your child, for whom you are responsible. The other is a vastly expanded sense of compassion. I went through a phase just after Henry was born where I could see the baby in every person I passed on the street, the child they once were, small and vulnerable. It was a kind of softening of judgement towards people in general.

As a writer I’ve become very interested in questions of moral complexity in the way I shape stories and characters, and I find writing to be in many ways an exercise in compassion or not judging. For me that’s the only way to approach character, to be open to the variety of choices that characters make, to understand those choices even and especially when they are not obviously the morally “right” choice, or when no “right” choice is obviously available. I’m sure my capabilities of non-judgement have been extended by parenthood, and this is one of the many things I didn’t expect but for which I am grateful.

There’s one line in The Legacy that I genuinely don’t think I could have written before becoming a mother. The book was being revised before undergoing a big structural edit, and my editor had asked me to include more detail about the developing relationship between my narrator, Julia, and her friend, Ralph, with whom she is hopelessly in love (unrequited). I wrote a couple of paragraphs extending on the idea that Julia didn’t believe in love at first sight, so she didn’t recognise it when it happened to her. And I wrote this sentence, one that I’m quite proud of, and recognised at the time as being somehow just right:

It made more sense to me later to believe that my feelings for Ralph grew over time like a friendship – like our friendship actually did – but in reality the dark heart of it, complete and complex as an old city, was there from the very start.

Kirsten Tranter, The LegacyThis sentence draws on the shocking experience of overwhelming affect that I felt when I saw Henry for the first time. Of course I’d become attached to this baby as he had grown inside me and kicked and squirmed around, but I was totally unprepared for that first rush of love: I distinctly remember reflecting on it in architectural terms, and thinking that I had been granted a new perspective on a phrase from Raymond Williams I’ve always loved, “structures of feeling”. It was as though I’d gone from having a vague expanse, an indistinct landscape of attachment and trepidation inside me, at one moment – and then turned around the next moment to find that not just a building had been erected there somehow instantaneously, but an entire ancient city, with the kind of depth and intricate complexity that only comes with long history. A brand new structure of feeling. It redefined love for me; it redefined feeling.

Have you written about any mothers in your fiction before or after the birth? Did having a child mean you had to go back and rewrite or change characterisation?

I have written about mothers but not in any direct way; none of my main characters are parents. Being a mother has I think changed the way I read in more obvious ways than how I write. I’m super-sensitive now to anything to do with motherhood and loss; I find it very difficult to bear stories that involve children and suffering.

I don’t think it’s necessarily true that motherhood is one of those experiences you have to go through yourself in order to write about it effectively or convincingly in fiction. After all, so much of what fiction is about is the ability to extend the boundaries of your own experience, to take the imaginative leap into the experience of another. But in my case as I mentioned above, motherhood has actually enabled that imaginative movement in important ways. I think I probably could write about it now much better than I could before, partly because I have the experience to draw on, but also because it’s made me more patient and better in general at imagining myself into the situation of others.

DEAR READER, WHAT DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU FIRST SAW YOUR BABY’S FACE? Would love to hear your comments…

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like: the ‘Writing Mothers’ series of interviews with Anna Funder, Susan JohnsonDebra AdelaideKaren Andrews (Miscellaneous Mum blog), Fiona McGregorAllison Tait (Life in a Pink Fibro) and Bianca Wordley (Big Words blog).

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18 thoughts on “Writing Mothers: Kirsten Tranter

  1. Claire Thomas on said:

    That interview is wonderful. Thank you both Kirstens for it. Kirsten T, your descriptions of the transformative nature of becoming a mother are so perfectly resonant for me. The compassion part particularly (the whole world in nappies!), and the oddly complete and complex love that just hits you. I have published one novel, have funding for a second and am about to complete my PhD. I cannot wait to focus entirely on fiction again, to “dive into it (my novel) with enormous joy and relief” as you say. That is exactly what I am waiting for. It is the thing that is spurring me on. And my little three year old’s encouragement – just get the job done, mummy, just get it done, she said. Bless her!

    • Yes, I was so moved by her responses. The way you feel when you first see your child’s face!
      And I know not everyone feels joy – so I’m sensitive to that too. But I was just lovestruck both times. Good luck with your writing, Claire. I am just about to work on the final draft of my first novel before it’s published next year but it is hard to find the time around two small children. I am spurred on too!

  2. Another wonderful interview Kirsten. Such moving reflections from Kirsten Tranter. I love her idea of motherhood as “a brand new structure of feeling”.

    My personal “totally new sense of my own capabilities” came about from surviving not so much the birth of my daughter but the three miscarriages that preceded it. When I first cast eyes on the face of my newborn, my overwhelming feeling was one of relief, followed rapidly by a heady mix of privilege, awe and joy.

    More than six years later, every single day those feelings of privilege, awe and joy echo in the contemplation — however brief — of my daughter.

    • Oh, Angela. That must have been incredibly difficult, but yes the relief and joy I can only imagine. It is such a beautiful interview; it made my heart sing!

    • Thanks for your comment, Angela. I had a traumatic miscarriage before I became pregnant with Henry, and it produced enormous emotional complications for me in the first two-thirds of pregnancy. I’d like to write about it at some point – doing this interview made me reflect on it a lot – but haven’t quite found the words yet. Definitely feel the privilege of having Henry with us – especially after going through some tough medical stuff with him in the first three months.

      • Kirsten, I suspect that if the time comes when either/both of us could find the words to write about those enormous emotional complications, we would discover common ground.

        I believe the painful experience that preceded my daughter’s birth made me better able to weather the tough times because I remain so grateful to have her in my life. I also believe it’s the reason I’m satisfied with my one child, not left wanting for more.

  3. Angela (Ms LiteraryMinded) on said:

    This is such a lovely interview. Thanks Kirsten & Kirsten.

  4. Pingback: Writing Mothers: An interview with Wild Colonial Girl - Kirsten Tranter

  5. wendyjameswriter on said:

    Thank you, Kirsten and Kirsten. I love the idea of your heart being in another’s body – though it does make for a terrible and terrifying vulnerability … Like Kirsten I didn’t begin writing fiction until after children – & sometimes i think the confidence the children gave me (of being competent, and maybe even an ‘adult’) gave me the courage to undertake a novel.

    • It’s curious that idea of being an adult. I still look at my son (now three) and get a bit of a shock. What, you mean, I’m a mum, he’s mine! In a good way, but I don’t know if I’ll ever really see myself as a true adult. I think I’m still stuck somewhere or fascinated by that age around 14 or 15, probably why my fiction tends to gravitate towards that voice! I dream of doing a PhD, but want to finish first novel and start on second before I think about that. Perhaps I’ll do a PhD in creative writing and write a novel that way (that’s how I did my first novel via Masters).

  6. wendyjameswriter on said:

    I’m still struggling with that dissertation, however : )

  7. I love the idea of seeing “the baby in every person I passed on the street”. How humane and democratic it is to remember that everyone was once an innocent baby. I used to ask my mum if she still saw the baby in us even when we were adults – which she said she did, as I now do in my own adult child. I also think the circumstances surrounding the birth of a child impact on how we feel and react when we first clap eyes on the baby (or babies as it was one time for me). I have felt a landslide of emotions at that moment with each of my five children – trepidation, awe, fear, wonder, amazement, pride and relief all being swept along by overwhelming love. With two of my children I also felt a distinct sense of recognition as if I already knew them. How can these experiences not change us as people and of course our outlook and ultimately our writing? And mothering certainly ingrains a certain discipline and maturity that can only benefit creative undertakings – unfortunately the double edge to that sword is that mothering also evaporates time and requires a selflessness that is contrary to those creative undertakings. All you writing mothers are amazing and I’m very impressed!!

  8. I’ve been meaning to post a comment on your blog for some time now to let you know how much I’m enjoying your Writing Mothers series. I’m not a mother; I read each post with a sense of terrified fascination.

    Thank you Kirsten (and Kirsten!) for another great interview.

  9. This is such an astute and insightful interview. Thank you.

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